In a few paragraphs, I’ll get to the promised interview, but first a few words of my own. (If you’re short on time, scroll to the interview box).
Every year, I greet Earth Day with mixed feelings because the first one came at a time of tremendous upheaval in another realm.
Although that first Earth Day in 1970 – which Denis Hayes coordinated – focused needed attention on the world's environmental troubles, it was also a diversion. Just a week after Earth Day, on April 29, the U.S. sent troops into Cambodia and, within three weeks, six students had been killed during protests at Kent State and Jackson State universities. Then, too, while millions joined in Earth Day activities, the event was peppered with corporate sponsors, many of whom were more interested in making a public relations coup than anything substantively ecological.
Indeed, some corporate participants took a downright hostile tone when it was pointed out that something engaged in by them might be environmentally destructive.
Nonetheless, for a time, in part because Richard Nixon needed something positive to balance his administration's disastrous continuation of the war in Southeast Asia and because he was pressured by Democrats like Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson and members of his own party, quite a number of successful environmental initiatives were undertaken, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and legislation on clean water and clean air.
Subsequent Earth Days drew fewer and fewer participants, but, no matter, because for years the U.S. led the world in aggressively tackling environmental challenges.
Along came Ronald Reagan, a man whose twisted views of something as obvious as old growth forest preservation left environmentalists of all stripes aghast: "A tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?" Although expressed less moronically, he delivered similar views (and policies) regarding public lands, pollution, the ozone hole, organic farming, global warming and advocates of renewable power sources and conservation, us laughable morons who wanted everyone to "freeze to death in the dark."
Naturally, Reagan wasn't just talking for himself. Difficulties in foreign policy, a Democratic congressional majority and the implosion of Anne Gorsuch Burford's wild reign at the EPA and Jim Watt's at the Department of Interior weakened the Gipper's ability to do the bidding of the eco-plunderers. Nonetheless, Executive Order 12291 did enough damage on its own. Issued in 1981, it required a cost-benefit analysis of all government rules (including environmental) and a requirement that only least-cost regulations could be adopted even if other proposals would provide greater benefits. About the only positive thing Reagan did for the environment was add millions of acres to the nation's protected Wilderness. That, and the fact he reinvigorated environmentalism by being so much against it.
When the 20th anniversary of Earth Day came around – with Denis Hayes again the coordinator – it gave environmental advocates a public opportunity to breathe new life into their efforts. For the first time in years, events were well-attended and garnered some decent attention from the megamedia.
In fact, within a few months of Earth Day 1990, hundreds of newspapers had reassigned reporters to the eco-beat, and dozens of them started whole sections devoted to environmental issues. Environmental organizations noted a spurt in financial contributions and memberships. I persuaded my bosses at the Los Angeles Times to initiate a weekly package of syndicated environmental articles that I subsequently edited. For a time the package was quite successful.
But media interest didn't last long. The newspaper reporters were reassigned to covering what color 9th graders think is coolest. Several of the flashy new eco-magazines that started up after Earth Day struggled and collapsed. And despite high hopes – and better appointments – Clinton's environmental record turned out to be (to be charitable) mediocre. Although he kept Congress from gouging deeper into EPA funding, across a wide range of environmental issues, especially energy, he was Mr. Nowhere Man. But at least you never caught him saying "a tree is a tree." And after 87 months of Mister Bush in office, Clinton looks dark green.
I'd list the terrible things Bush has done or plans to do when it comes to the environment, but this Diary would run until Earth Day 50. Whether it's forest policy, mining policy, energy policy, public lands policy, climate policy, pollution policy or transportation policy, the administration can be counted on to do the wrong thing.
Denis Hayes has spent decades fighting for the environment. In 1978, the Carter Administration appointed him head of the Solar Energy Research Institute, which is where I met him when I was hired at the Solar Law Reporter. When the Reagan Administration gutted SERI’s budget in 1981, Hayes was fired, as were hundreds of other employees, including me.
Since then, he’s done prodigious eco-work. He was named a Time magazine hero of the planet in 1999, shortly before he coordinated Earth Day 2000, the biggest Earth Day yet. He is now president of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle. The foundation seeks to promote a model of sustainable development in the Pacific Northwest. Its grants are focused on energy and climate change, transportation, sustainable agriculture, ecosystem protection, green chemistry, and other arenas to help, as Hayes puts it "shape Cascadia into, if you will, a comfortable, progressive, innovative version of ecotopia."
Monday, I asked Hayes five questions:
|MB: If you could wave your magic green wand and change one thing the environmental movement has done - or not done - in the past four decades, what would that be?
HAYES: First, before answering this one, I want to make clear that I think environmentalism is not near 'death,' or even retirement, and I'm very definitely not part of the camp that wants to "kill" it.
The environmental movement has produced more widespread, fundamental, structural improvement in America than any other movement in history. The only thing that comes close is the New Deal -- and the environmental movement didn't have a hugely popular, 4-term President pushing our agenda. We caused the creation of an EPA and a NOAA; passed a raft of hard-hitting legislation that regulated everything from air and water pollution to endangered species to occupational health to marine mammal protection to biomimickring forestry to banning DDT, lead, ozone depleting chemicals, and a variety of long-lasting toxins; and promulgated a set of values that has guided tens of millions of people in their choice of house, car, diet, vacations, job selection, and even the number of children they choose to have.
Students now study environmental engineering, environmental law, environmental toxicology, environmental forestry, environmental economics, green chemistry, sustainable business, etc. -- and have jobs waiting for them when they complete their educations.
Now, to answer your question: If I were starting over, I would have tried harder to instill from the very beginning a concern for economic justice as a bedrock value of the movement, and I would have sought a way to organize the tens of thousands of local groups across the nation into a coherent whole that functioned organically -- not just on Earth Day, but around the calendar. Some groups, most notably the Sierra Club, have lots of local chapters, but as a movement we've done too little to have a vibrant presence in all communities.
In the last few decades, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown significantly. The core strength of the environmental movement is college educated, middle class "haves" (or at least "quasi-haves.') But the movement is underrepresented in communities of color and disadvantaged communities in general. This has many unfortunate implications including (1) many current environmental issues, notably global warming, will have huge economic costs, and the poor need to be represented at the table when those costs are allocated; 2) most environmental problems impose their heaviest burdens on the very poor; and, 3) these populations are growing faster than other segments of society, so in a democracy they are becoming increasingly powerful.
Earth Day, here and around the world, is heavily focused on growing and diversifying the environmental movement. If you review the march across the podium at the big Earth Day event at the Mall in Washington, D.C., last Sunday, you will see that a many of the speakers and most of the celebrities were people of color, and the audience was more than half non-white. We are trying!
MB: If, for three minutes, you had the undivided attention of the man or woman who takes the oath of office January 20, 2009, what single piece of advice would you give him or her regarding environmental matters?
HAYES: Each President has six months to accomplish something. The challenge is to get something significant done and use that success to build momentum, rather than round onto the shoals the way the Clinton Health Care initiative did in 1993 -- leading directly to the loss of control of both houses of Congress in 1994. The towering environmental issue of our time is climate change. You should, in an utterly transparent effort, assign someone you trust completely to organize a task force to swiftly design -- with transparent public input -- a climate policy that will catapult America from global laggard to global leader in this vital field, within 30 days of taking office. The world needs to be reassured that America is back in the game.
The core element should be an upstream cap and auction program -- regulating carbon not at the millions of places where it is burned but at the 2,000 places where it enters the economy -- oil fields, mine mouths, pipelines from Canada and Mexico, ports. The number of carbon permits auctioned off should decrease by 3 percent per year, and they should not be "off-settable" by any action that does not stabilize carbon for geological time periods (i.e., planting a tree does not let you burn coal.) The (eventually very large) proceeds from the auction should be allocated in portions in ways that accelerate the transition to a super-efficient new energy economy powered by renewable energy sources. The long-term energy future will be dominated by direct solar electricity and base-load geothermal.
MB Three-and-a-half years ago Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, co-founders of the Apollo Alliance, wrote "The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World," first an essay and then a book that have sparked an on-going debate about the approach the environmental advocacy groups have chosen. Greatly condensed, their argument posits that the environmentalists need to abandon its old and largely ineffective tactical approach of supporting technical fixes and adopt "vision" and "values" that lead to a whole new definition of "environmentalism" as including matters as far-flung as tax policy, pensions, and health care in order to enlist new allies, such as the United Auto Workers and the U.S. auto industry. Do you agree with their views?
HAYES: I agree with their description of the problem – and indeed, have been making much the same critique for many years. But their prescription is (with all due respect, and I really like these guys) nonsense. They want to shut down all existing environmental groups in order to build a powerful new progressive movement. I want to incorporate most existing environmental groups into a broad progressive movement where they would represent environmental issues even as collegial groups represent the direct interests of labor, the poor, education, universal health care, venture capital, and all the other building blocks of the coalition. The wisdom (and the likelihood) of getting an environmental group with hundreds of employees, hundreds of thousands of members, and tens of millions of dollars of annual income to just shut up shop is roughly the same as the likelihood of the United Auto Workers just shutting up shop.
Picking up the UAW pension obligations in return for UAW support for clean vehicles might or might not make sense. I'm skeptical. Under Walter Reuther, the UAW supported the Clean Air Act and much other progressive legislation. In recent decades, the union has abandoned many of its progressive values. I'd be more inclined to campaign to take care of the health care of ALL Americans with a single payer universal health care system that simply includes the UAW along with everyone else, and get government mandates and incentives to move to a vehicle fleet of plug-in hybrids and Zero Emission Vehicles.
MB: Nuclear power is being widely touted by many – including some in the environmental movement who previously opposed it – as at least a transitional solution to global warming? Where do you stand on this issue?
HAYES: By its very nature, nuclear power cannot be a "transitional" technology. Once a country has fissile materials, enriching capacity, reactors, reprocessing, and a skilled work force, the horse is out of the barn. And since any atom that can be split to produce commercial power can also be split to produce a bomb, the long-term consequences are dire.
Stepping back for a moment, in our globalized economy, the United States cannot expect to turn to a technology as an essential element of our energy future that we are not willing to share with the rest of the world. And the rest of the world is no more enthusiastic about building a energy system in which all their fuel comes from the U.S. and all their spent fuel (i.e., inter alia, plutonium to be reprocessed as fuel for the next generation of reactors, or bombs) is returned to the U.S. They will want to control the whole fuel cycle. And it is worth bearing in mind that the uranium enrichment in Iran which has us so upset is an absolutely essential ingredient if Iran is to develop a commercial nuclear fuel cycle.
Beyond the threat of, say, bombs in shipping containers, consider that India and Pakistan already have a sufficient stockpile of nuclear bombs that a regional war between them might produce global nuclear winter. If somehow Israel were pulled into that war, the number of bombs would almost certainly induce a catastrophic global result.
Over the next quarter century, I am frankly more worried about nuclear proliferation than I am about climate change. Fortunately, the economic cost of nuclear power is sufficiently high that it will not be built anywhere without enormous government subsidies. So if we can simply make the case that this 50-year-old technology no longer deserves government subsidies – including the federal government providing free insurance against catastrophic outcomes – it will be dead as a doornail.
MB: Many people – even progressives – argue that there is nothing they can personally do except around the fringes to help the environment, that only government policy working for the common good can be effective. Do you agree or not?
HAYES: True solutions require engagement by everyone, including industries and libertarians, and that only happens when the law demands it. So, of course I support very strong legislation. However, before such legislation makes smart behavior mandatory, those of us who care about global warming should be reducing our carbon footprints. There are dozens of reasons why this is true. They include a) I have much more credibility arguing for tough CAFE standards if I have been driving a Prius for seven years (as I have) than if I've been driving an SUV; b) every bit of carbon that goes into the atmosphere counts, and we Americans (who have produced the lion's share of the atmospheric CO2 over the last 100 years) have a special responsibility to reduce our emissions – individually and collectively; and c) some of this stuff requires learning how to do things before it becomes a tidal wave.
For example, we need to learn how to recycle the mercury in compact fluorescent light bulbs and the cadmium in some of the thin film photovoltaic cells before they arrive in a tidal way -- and some early adopters were necessary to focus attention in issues needing solutions.
The Solar Law Reporter focused attention on the need to envelope zoning to protect access for sunlight back when you were there – but it isn't until people begin putting up expensive collectors, only to have someone build a big building to the south, that government realizes there is a real problem needing addressing. As one who seeks photovoltaic cells on the roofs and southern walls of ALL buildings, this is a big issue to solve. PV sales are roughly doubling every two years, and they will run into a brick wall (no pun intended) without such action, and the early adopters are now starting to demand it.